> Rural Millennials: Bucking the Trend, or Charting a New One?

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Rural Millennials: Bucking the Trend, or Charting a New One?

In this age of Covid-19 (to address the 10 attogram virus in the room), we’re all being advised to maintain social distance. Until this shakes out, living in high-density cities isn’t as appealing as it was a few weeks ago or — hopefully — as it will again sometime this year. But even before it became a public health issue, many Millennials had already discovered the appeal of moving to a place where they could spread out a bit. While this blog tends to focus on what drives young adults to favor one urban area over another, it’s important to understand why so many have chosen None of the Above, USA.

A reality, not a trend

The appeal of rural life might be underscored by the current, palpable fear of contagion, but is completely independent of it. We’ve seen articles on Millennials moving out to the country since at least 2017, and they almost certainly predate that. And even The PBS NewsHour has reported on this topic.

According to an EY study, young adults are almost as likely to buy a home in the sticks than in the city. The report suggests that, while 31% of Millennials still gravitate toward urban centers when it comes time to buy a home, 26% choose a small town or rural community.

millennial(The report also notes that, between 2016 and 2018, the proportion owning their own homes rose from 26% to 40% while those living with their parents dropped from 30% to 16%. The 43% figure for renters remained constant.)

And the reason is pretty much what you’d expect: money.

“A renter household in an urban area earning the median U.S. household income should expect to pay 36.8 percent of their income on rent each month. In the suburbs, that falls to 31.8 percent; and in rural areas to 23.9 percent,” according to Zillow senior economist Sarah Mikhitarian. “A home buyer looking to purchase the median-valued home in an urban area should expect to pay 26.5 percent of their income on a mortgage payment each month. In the suburbs and rural areas, that falls to 20.2 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively.”

One consistent theme among sources for this post indicates that student loan debt affects the cash flows of Millennials far more than it did those of previous generations.

But what’s the appeal?

According to one report, starting a business is easier in a small town.

“Larger cities have very saturated job markets, especially when it comes to businesses pertaining to the interests of millennials. 30-somethings are finding that in smaller towns, there are more opportunities to open businesses of their own, ”blogger Jonathan West writes in SpareFoot. “Moving to a more rural area affords you the luxury of lax regulation, cheaper real estate, and less job saturation so you can more easily get your business up and running.”

ruralWhile Millennials consider themselves entrepreneurial, the EY study suggests they might be kidding themselves and actually aren’t starting businesses at the same rate as their elders did. That said, they do tend to work — either willingly or out of necessity — in the gig economy, and remote work is certainly just as viable in these low-cost towns as inexpensive gateway cities.

None of that is to say there are no Millennial business founders. There are plenty and, if you’re looking for heartwarming anecdotes about young adults finding proprietary success in small-town America, Wells Fargo offers plenty as part of the bank’s participation in the nationwide “Rethinking Rural” initiative. 

There’s more to the choice of rural vs. urban life of course.

And it shouldn’t be lost that small towns aren’t all the same, any more than cities are. Each has its own personality, and sometimes a person and a community just click. To paraphrase Andre Maurois: In literature as in real estate, we are astonished at what is chosen by others. (The 20th-century French memoirist actually wrote “In literature as in love …” but the logic holds.)

“Growing art communities such as North Adams, Massachusetts or Marfa, Texas are typically sparsely populated areas, but they are currently experiencing a shift in their demographic – as millennials are looking for a slower-paced lifestyle and a close-knit community, and see it in these environments,” designer Rima Abousleiman wrote for Archinect, noting that “neither North Adams or Marfa was inherently predisposed to cater to the arts prior to their current status as a sort of contemporary art haven.”

Patrick Woodie, president of NC Rural Center, suggests that there might be one more clincher to explain the growth of 30somethings in the Tar Heel State’s least densely populated counties, one that improves education, entrepreneurship and even access to health care.

“If there’s not broadband there that’s robust and available, that’s not going to be one of those communities,” he told WRAL-TV, Raleigh’s NBC affiliate.

Where millennials are landing

Of course, the urban-rural divide is more a matter of degree than a dichotomy. There’s plenty of ground in between, figuratively and literally. They’re not so many young singles anymore as they are young marrieds. And, like young marrieds of earlier generations, they’re gravitating to suburbs. According to the EY survey, 41% of Millennials who owned a home in 2018 lived in bedroom communities.

And yet, there are plenty who are setting down roots in cities, just not the overcrowded, noisy ones.

“Madison, Wisconsin, is a new mecca for millennials, according to a recent study from the National Association of Realtors, which ranked the top millennial housing markets based on both their high share of current young residents and of millennials moving in,” writes CNBC real estate correspondent Diana Olick. “Three out of 4 recent transplants to Madison were millennials and they have mostly stayed in the area, giving the city an overall high millennial population.”

Other secondary markets she notes include:

  • Oklahoma City
  • Grand Rapids, Mich.
  • Omaha, Neb.
  • Durham, N.C.
  • El Paso, Texas
  • Salt Lake City, Utah

It’ll be important going forward to keep tabs on this small-is-beautiful trend because there’s some discussion about how desirable cities will be going forward. Again, these discussions predate the current pandemic.

“A 2016 study by University of Southern California professor Dowell Myers contends millennials will be less likely to cluster in cities in the future,” Casey Fabris of the Roanoke (Va.) Times reports. “Three factors — the size of millennial birth cohorts, job opportunities, and housing availability — ‘harmonized’ before 2010, causing millennials to flock to cities, according to Myers. He expects the trends to shift.”

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